Cogut Institute for the Humanities

“Democracy: A Humanities Perspective” showcases the layered understanding and analysis that humanities scholars bring to the study of democracy, with special emphasis on current challenges in the U.S. and abroad.

Political Activism: Lessons from ACT UP and the AIDS Crisis

“ACT-UP was not a consensus-based movement,” said AIDS historian Sarah Schulman. “And by that I mean people did not have to agree. [...] There was a bottom line. There was a statement of unity, which is like a statement of shared values, and that was only one line. It was ‘Direct action to end the AIDS crisis.’ [...] So basically if you were going to do direct action to end the AIDS crisis, basically you could do it. [...] It was a kind of radical democracy that allowed people in the movement to be effective from where they were at. [...] If you have radical democracy in a movement, with, of course, a bottom line of values [...] you’re facilitating a wide range of people acting in an effective way that makes sense to them. And so, as a consequence, ACT UP had so many campaigns going on and so many different milieus, in so many different ways, with so many different aesthetics, that actually it was that simultaneity of response that made it so effective.”

The webinar was recorded live on October 14, 2021, with a talk by AIDS historian Sarah Schulman and moderation by Amanda Anderson, Director of the Cogut Institute for the Humanities. 

Discriminating Data: A Conversation with Wendy Chun

Data scholar Wendy Hui Kyong Chun explored the dangers of machine learning and big data and how they provoke people and cultivate outrage for the sake of increasing engagement: “In order to encourage clicking etc. what you need to do is agitate users. You need users who are agitated. And part of the best way to agitate users [...] is to put them in homophilic clusters. What’s really bizarre about homophily, which is the idea that similarity breeds connection is that it’s always sold in terms of you’re more comfortable when you’re around people like you. [...] And what’s really interesting — and this is what Frances Haugen showed in her whistleblower account, was that actually when Facebook changed the feed so you were amongst your friends and family, things got worse. I like to think about it in terms of the iron filing experiment [...] We have a whole bunch of iron filings. It’s a mass. Then you put two magnets underneath and then what emerges is actually precisely a clustered network. And in order for these clusters to remain, they need to be absolutely attracted to their opposite. So hate bonds these groups together.”

The webinar was recorded live on February 18, 2022, with a talk by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Canada 150 Research Chair in New Media at Director of the Digital Democracies Institute at Simon Fraser University, and moderation by Bonnie Honig, Nancy Duke Lewis Professor of Modern Culture and Media and Political Science at Brown University.